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Australian Catholic Church rejects recommendation to make celibacy voluntary for priests

(Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse/Handout via REUTERS)The volumes of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse sit on the table before the signing ceremony of the release of the papers at Government House in Canberra, Australia, December 15, 2017.

Leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia have rejected a key recommendation of a landmark inquiry into child sexual abuse that the Vatican change the Church's policy to make celibacy voluntary for priests.

After five years of work, Australia's royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse produced a 21-volume report detailing the abuse of tens of thousands of children in Australian institutions over past decades.

The commission has made more than 400 recommendations, including the creation of a new National Office for Child Safety and the requirement that members of the clergy report abuse revealed to them in a confessional.

The report urged the Australian Catholic bishops conference to ask the Vatican to reconsider its celibacy rules. While the commission found that celibacy for priests was not a direct cause of abuse, it noted that the policy elevated the risk when compulsorily celibate male clergy or religious figures had privileged access to children.

The commission also called on the bishops conference to ask the Vatican to reform canon law by removing provisions that "prevent, hinder or discourage compliance with mandatory reporting laws by bishops or religious superiors."

"We recommend that canon law be amended so that the 'pontifical secret' does not apply to any aspect of allegations or canonical disciplinary processes relating to child sexual abuse," the report stated, according to The Guardian.

However, Denis Hart, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, contended that the seal of the confessional was "inviolable" and "can't be broken." He said that he would encourage those who have confessed to abusing children to admit their crimes outside the confessional so that it could be reported to the police.

"I would feel terribly conflicted, and I would try even harder to get that person outside confessional, but I cannot break the seal. The penalty for any priest breaking the seal is excommunication," he said.

Hart also dismissed calls to change the policy on celibacy saying, "We know very well that institutions who have celibate clergy and institutions that don't have celibate clergy both face these problems. We know very well that this happens in families that are certainly not observing celibacy."

Anthony Fisher, the Catholic archbishop of Sydney, said that he would study the findings and recommendations of the commission carefully and provide a detailed response afterward.

The commission, headed by Justice Peter McClellan, has heard stories of sexual abuse that took place in more than 4,000 institutions, including religious organizations, sporting clubs, schools and orphanages.

Nearly 2,500 victims told the commission about mistreatment they suffered in an institution managed by the Catholic Church, representing 61.8 percent of all survivors who reported abuse in a religious institution.

Over 8,000 people shared their stories to the commission in private sessions, while hundreds more testified about the abuse they suffered through public hearings that lasted 444 days. More than 2,500 cases of abuse have been referred to the police, resulting in 230 prosecutions.

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